police violence against the working girls in China, published in South China Morning Post, 13 Dec. 2012

Police Violence Against Working Girls

By Zhang Lijia

During one recent afternoon, ten “working girls” gathered at the office of an NGO (Non-Government Organization) in a northern Chinese city, one of the few in the country that has dedicated itself to female sex workers. I took part as an advisor to the organization. The girls, women to be precise, mostly in their middle or late 30’s, chatted like magpies and munched on biscuits and mandarins as they enjoyed a rare break from their daily grind at low-grade massage or beauty parlours. They mostly came from poverty-stricken villages in China’s hinterland. Organized by the NGO, the gathering was to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and more importantly, to share relevant experiences and learn how to deal with the police.

As soon as the head of the NGO,whom I shall call Yong Gan, a former prostitute herself, called for the meeting to start, the girls became quiet and the atmosphere sobered. First of all, each person was asked to introduce herself briefly and to state what she hated most in the world. Two women, Ms Li from Sichuan and her colleague, both in their forties, said what they hated most was being groped by clients without their consent. The rest named the police as their most hated.

Prostitution was more or less wiped out by the Chinese Communists after they took over power in 1949. However, it has made a spectacular resurgence in the past two decades thanks to growing wealth and relaxed social control, even though it is still illegal. “Sweeping away Yellow (the colour representing prostitution) Campaigns” have been coming and going in waves.

At the gathering, Ms. Li tearfully described how she was made drunk by a client and then raped by him. When she complained to the owner of her massage parlour, the business woman blamed Ms Li for not having charged the client. Yong Gan pointed out that violence poses the biggest threat to sex workers. Since clients pay, some of them feel they can do whatever they please to the girls. The vast majority of sex workers in China work independently, without a pimp or an organization controlling them. There’s no protection either.

But violence at the hands of the police is far more common and severe, as evident from the stories of their brushes with the police. The most horrific was told by a Hubei woman in her mid thirties who calls herself Mei. One night in early November, three policemen suddenly raided her massage parlour and discovered a sperm stained tissue in the bin. With this evidence, Mei was taken to a police station where she was interrogated. She firmly denied having sold sex that night. To force her confession, the policemen hit her and kicked her and then sprayed her with high-pressure water jet. “It felt like being hit by hailstones,” Mei recalled. After two policemen left, the third said openly that he was after money and asked how much she could afford to pay. Mei said two thousand, knowing that it was common practice that you had to pay either a fine or a bribe. The policeman then coerced her into engaging in sexual intercourse before releasing her in the morning. A few days later, the policeman turned up to demand two thousand yuan, which Mei thought she had been exempted from in exchange for the sex.

In a private corner, Mei showed me the bruises on her thighs and legs. Such stories are something I’ve heard over and over again during my research on the daily life of working girls for a non-fiction book on the subject. A while back, one woman in Shenzhen told me how, after she had lost consciousness from a beating, a policeman filled her nose with mustard to wake her up. Another talked about her near-death experience after her head was covered by a plastic bag and her nose pinched. Last November, Yong Gan learnt that a middle-aged woman died of a heart-attack at a police station. Her family was convinced that torture had led to the heart-attack. Many of them, particularly those working in low-class establishments, live in constant fear of police raids, arrests and the inevitable acts of humiliation and violence that are to follow.

“This violence is very common because there is no recourse – the police hold all the power, and the girls, at the lowest rung of the social ladder, have none,” explains Richard Burger, author of the recently publishedBehind the Red Door: Sex in China.

The vagueness and confusion surrounding the legality of prostitution also poses a major problem. In theory, participants in prostitution should not be treated as criminals unless they know they carry venereal diseases or a minor under the age of 14 is involved whereas organizers can be punished severely. As prostitution has been expanding, various laws and regulations were made ever since 1987. According to Decision on Strictly Forbidden Buying and Selling sex issued in 1991, participants are subject to a six month to two year prison term following a Chinese system of ‘shourongjiaoyu’ –administrative sanctions, which is similar to the notorious laogai system of prison labour camps where people are jailed without a trail for minor offenses. In 2005, a new regulation, somehow contradicting the earlier one, stated that participants can be detained between ten to fifteen days with a fine of less than 5000 yuan, and for those lighter offenders, the detention must be no longer than five days and the fine under 500 yuan.

In reality, the new law hasn’t really replaced the older one as it should have. In addition to this, local authorities also follow their own provincial rulings. The unclearly defined law, together with a lack of supervision and transparency, gives plenty of space for corruption and the abuse of power.

Some international NGOs and human rights organizations have complained to the Chinese government for failing to comply with the UN Convention of Eliminating Violence against Women and some have even called for the decriminalization of prostitution. Yong Gan, however, knows such a call is unrealistic. “The working girls are not even treated as human beings in China,” she said. In 2008, with funding from an international NGO, she founded her organization, offering free condoms to the working girls, educating them on safe sex and providing much support to those operating in the eastern part of the city.

Right now, she and her NGO are also trying to arm the working girls with knowledge of the law and tactics for avoiding trouble. Mei felt lucky that she had been to similar training sessions, therefore understood the importance of never admitting to having sold sex. Otherwise, the consequences could have been worse. For them, the NGO is a home they can turn to. But the home itself stands on a very fragile base, existing also in a grey zone, which is why Yong Gan doesn’t even dare to reveal the identity of her organization.

Without the rule of law, the elimination of violence against the working girls seems a very distant dream.

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